Skeleton

Lauren McIntyre: Investigating the dead – a day at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Following our post on the Day of Archaeology blog last year, we thought it would be great to provide another snapshot showing the kind of work that our team undertake here. I will also be live tweeting my day in the office from the Oxford Archaeology Twitter account – you can follow us at @oatweet to see exactly what we’re up to!

Today is my first day back in the office after working out on site for quite a number of weeks. My first job of the day was to take some bone samples for radiocarbon dating (after catching up with the rest of the team on project updates and answering lots of emails!). Stratigraphic information and dates from spot finds were only able to provide a broad “Roman” date for one of the cremation burials in question. The second burial (an inhumation) was completely undated. Radiocarbon dating will therefore allow us to establish more accurate dates which will help us to contextualise the burials in question. We take approximately 2g of bone for the sample, being sure to identify and weigh the fragment. This information is then recorded on a proxy note, which is put back with the remainder of the skeleton. This is very important, so that it is clear to any future researchers accessing the skeleton (usually after the skeleton has been deposited in a museum) that a sample has been taken, and they can easily see what has been sampled and why.

Cremated bone sample for C14 dating, and proxy note

The rest of my day is spent discussing a variety of upcoming projects, including strategies for excavating an inverted cremation urn recently excavated on one of our sites, as well as starting analysis of the small assemblage from which the C14 samples were taken. The assemblage comprises both cremated bone and unburnt inhumation burials. I start analysis of the cremated material by sorting the bone into identifiable and unidentifiable fragments. Cremated bone deposits can contain large identifiable fragments, although a large proportion are often unidentifiable. Once fragments are sorted, they are weighed and examined for evidence of age, sex and pathology. This helps us to determine how many people are represented, and potentially gives us demographic and health information. We also record the level and pattern of fragmentation, as well as the colour of the bone, and degree of shrinkage: this information can tell us a lot about the cremation process, which is known to vary between different time periods.

Sorting cremated bone into identifiable skeletal elements

Helen, the second member of our team, is spending today writing up one of our larger assemblages, a post-medieval hospital assemblage from Oxfordshire. The skeletons in this assemblage have substantial quantities of pathological lesions, and have produced some very interesting case studies!

Helen, PO at HBS

Adolescent male skeleton with peri-mortem fractures of the cranium and left ribs

Transfemoral leg amputation with peri-mortem tibial fracture

So far today Helen has been looking at the fracture patterns from a single skeleton, trying to establish whether these injuries may have been caused by a single traumatic event, or whether they were accumulated over time. The skeleton potentially has ribs that have been dislocated where they meet the vertebrae, as well as ante mortem fractures to the sternum, ribs, scapula, arm and wrist. As well as this she has been looking at fracture patterns across groups of skeletons – one group contains several male skeletons which all exhibit fractures to the wrist, first metacarpal (base of the thumb) and nasal bones. One possibility is that these people were all partaking in activities such as boxing or bare knuckle fighting, a fairly popular activity in late 18th century towns.

Louise, Head of the Heritage Burial Services team, is busy today scoping out a desk based assessment of a disused post-medieval burial ground. She is exploring the number, date range and extent of burials present at the site in question. A desk based assessment of a known burial site would primarily involve a headstone survey and visits to the church and local records office to examine burial registers and plans. The results of the research would then assist with plans for future development of the site.

Louise Loe, Head of HBS, working hard as always!

Yet again, you can see that the work we are undertaking here is very diverse. Whether we are sorting and quantifying cremated bone fragments or analysing data to look for patterns of health and activity, everything we do helps to build a picture of how people lived and died in the past.

All photographs within this post are copyright of Oxford Archaeology.

Lauren McIntyre is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s South office in Oxford, in our Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/specialist-services/7-top-level-pages/14-burials-archaeology

Researching the Human Remains at Hampshire Cultural Trust

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog: https://hampshirearchaeology.wordpress.com/

Nicole Beale

Cynthia is working with Garrard to select samples for dating, to find out more about the human remains from the Danebury environs. Today they are working on the bones from an Iron Age cemetery, Suddern Farm. The work is part of a project with Oxford University, University of Glasgow and University of Leicester, and is ongoing.

Garrard and Cynthia look at the remains from the Danebury environs

Garrard points out that there is a visible healed fracture on the radius of the left wrist of the individual that they are looking at.

Garrard points out the healed fracture

Garrard is working on an individual from Weyhill Fair that was found under the foundations of a building. There had been very little information about the individual because the remains were under a floor and did not have any other means of dating associated with them.

The work area at Chilcomb HQ

Hampshire Field Club funded the radio-carbon dating and Garrard is assessing the materials which will make up part of the report covering this research.

Garrard

Cynthia

Nicole Beale

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!